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Caught in crossfire, civilians flee Waziristan

By Ivan Watson, CNN
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A hub for relief in Pakistan
  • More than 160,000 civilians flee fighting between Pakistani forces, Taliban
  • International aid organizations, foreign journalists banned from combat zone
  • Refugees say their villages were bombed and shelled by government forces
  • "Everything is damaged... everything is lost," one refugee tells CNN

Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan (CNN) -- They come trudging up a dirt path in single file, towards a white cricket stadium in the middle of this dusty provincial town.

Pakistanis forced to flee their homes after the mountainous border region of South Waziristan once again became the site of fierce fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban.

Some, like a spectacled teacher name Amanullah, spent four days traveling on foot with his family of seven. He says they fled the daily bombardment of their village.

"Everything is damaged... everything is lost," he says, in broken English. "Very large bombing. We are running."

The Pakistani army estimates more then 160,000 civilians have fled the region, more then half of the population of South Waziristan.

The army is running the aid operation here in the neighboring region of Dera Ismail Khan. Workers distribute food, sleeping mats, tents, buckets and cash hand-outs equaling about $60 a month per family. In a single day, they have doled out assistance to more then 1,300 families.

It is a heavily-guarded operation that is strictly controlled by the military, the same military whose offensive against the Taliban forced these people to flee their homes.

Soldiers with machine guns defend the walls of the stadium. Confused and traumatized civilians clutching ration cards file past armed men in uniform.

International aid organizations and foreign journalists have been banned from operating anywhere near this conflict zone. The only way outsiders can legally get a glimpse of what is happening here, is with a military escort.

"The problem of not getting the international community actively involved in this area is the security concern," said Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, the commander in charge of the relief effort here.

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"God forbid if something happens to an international [aid worker]. It dents the image of the country. It puts the entire relief operation on hold."

The displaced people here offer outsiders a glimpse of life in the conflict zone.

"The government is bombing us with jet planes. And the army fires its artillery. And the shelling continues day and night. The poor people are dying," says Faizel Khaliq, a black-bearded man who fled the village of Makin with 25 family members.

"There was only one road to escape. It was a dirt track."

Some of the escapees said they had seen civilians killed after they were caught in the crossfire.

But no one was willing to talk about the militants and their foreign fighter allies who, by some accounts, had turned South Waziristan into a virtual Taliban mini-state.

When asked about the militants, men laughed, hid their heads in their hands, or simply refused to talk.

The teacher, Amanullah, says the civilians have been caught between two armed enemies, the army and the Taliban.

"People between two sides," he says. "Crushed."

International aid organizations are calling for the Pakistani authorities to provide more outside access to the conflict zone.

"If we're not allowed to get in there it means very little humanitarian aid can reach the population," says Sebastian Brack, the spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Islamabad.

For many of the displaced people, this is the third time they have been forced to flee their homes in recent years. The army launched previous offensives against the Taliban in South Waziristan in 2004 and 2007.

Nadeem says this time, the operation is different. He insists that after waves of deadly militant suicide bombings, the military now has the public support to finish the job. And he says this time, the military is offering humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, even as its forces pound suspected militant hide-outs.

"By virtue of running an equally effective humanitarian operation," Nadeem argues, "there is every possibility for you to win the hearts and minds of the people."

The general predicts the citizens of South Waziristan probably won't be able to return home until at least March 2010.

That is little consolation to the Pakistanis who leave the stadium, clutching donated plastic buckets and wheelbarrows full of food, who now face an uncertain future after being forced to abandon their homes.